Helping sometimes hurts

We’ve all been there – we desperately want our students to be successful and so we have become masters at “being helpful” in the science classroom.  We see students forgetting directions, not recording data correctly, getting the wrong result from an experiment and we step in to remind them of what they are missing.  Or, perhaps we have even said, “Here, let me help you with that,” and then proceed to assist by doing part of the work for them – maybe adjusting a ramp to the right pitch, or moving a fulcrum, or shifting some aspect of their experiment.  We have the very best of intentions when we do this, but what are we really teaching the students by “helping?”

Below are some unintended consequences of what students might learn when we become “too helpful.”

  • I can’t think for myself; I should just do it the teacher’s way. Students want to please us and if they think you want them to do something a particular way, they will try to do that.  This is why so many students seek out teacher’s input to the basic question, “Am I doing this right?”
  • Getting something “wrong” is bad and something to be avoided. We want students to understand we learn just as much from our “failures” as we do our successes.  In order to help students focus on the learning, we need to make sure we are assessing students on their learning and NOT on final products.  This frees students to discover independently without fear of their grade being impacted because their final product does not look or perform in a particular way.  In science, we want the focus to be on the process, not the product.
  • The teacher has all the answers. There is no scientist who knows it all and a classroom community of scientists is no different – the teacher gets to learn right along with the student.  We want to ask guiding questions to help students make the discovery and take ownership of their learning through their construction of knowledge. Even when it seems more time efficient to “give them” the answer, they will retain the learning when they develop it for themselves.
  • There is only one way to do something – and we all need to do it the same way. While the old adage “there is more than one way to skin a cat” might not be a particularly pleasant visualization, it does drive home the point.  While teachers often already have an idea of the way something could be done, it does not mean our students do not have an equally effective or insightful way of completing a task that still utilizes the disciplinary core ideas we are investigating. For example, if we are measuring bounce height of a golf ball and the directions ask us to drop the ball 3 times from 40cm, a student group might be able to make some interesting discoveries by dropping the ball from 3 different heights instead.


Let’s consider what might happen if we chose to not intervene (“be helpful”) – students will experience natural consequences and learn from those.  While their experiment or activity might not be viewed as a “success”, the learning can be just as rich and deep as they reflect on what they could have (or should have) done differently.  When the focus is on LEARNING and the PROCESS, and not a final product, we develop a very different viewpoint of “success.”

Failure quote "We learn from failure, not from success"

When we allow students to productively struggle and experience these challenges, they become their own problem solvers and also learn resilience.  The teacher is no longer the person to “bail them out” or the person who has all the answers.

So, how do we help, then?  By asking guiding questions to help students process and organize their own thinking.  Questions such as “What is the goal you are trying to achieve?” “Is what you are doing helping get closer to the goal?” “I see you made a change – what is the effect you are hoping it will have?” “Is there something specifically that is challenging you in this?”  “How does this seem like it is making sense with what you already know?” “Can you show me your data that helped you make your decision?” “What are you hoping is the result of (student action)?” “Did (student action) get you the result you were expecting?”
As tempting as it is to provide “cookbook” labs or complete directions so students do not have to problem solve or rationalize their actions, we are actually hurting our students by taking away an opportunity to construct their own learning and solve their own problems. We need to help students view “failure” as a natural part of scientific discovery and encourage them by ensuring our assessment measurements are not dependent on a specific product, but instead is a measurement of the learning. It takes time for us to break this habit in ourselves, we like to jump in and “help” our students but we need to keep repeating to ourselves “Helping sometimes hurts.”